I don’t actually have a review of my favourite book on my blog, mainly because I read it ages ago and always have so many new books to talk about that I don’t get a chance to put reviews of older reads up too. Since I’m doing an ‘about me and my favourites’ theme for my blogoversary week, I thought now was a good time to change that!
(You can also win Howl's Moving Castle in my blogoversary giveaway here - hurry, not long left to enter!)
Here’s the synopsis (from Goodreads):
In which a witch bewitched the hatter's daughter - and then some....
Sophie lived in the town of Market Chipping, which was in Ingary, a land in which anything could happen, and often did - especially when the Witch of the Waste got her dander up. Which was often.
As her younger sisters set out to seek their fortunes, Sophie stayed in her father's hat shop. Which proved most unadventurous, until the Witch of the Waste came in to buy a bonnet, but was not pleased. Which is why she turned Sophie into an old lady. Which was spiteful witchery.
Now Sophie must seek her own fortune. Which means striking a bargain with the lecherous Wizard Howl. Which means entering his ever-moving castle, taming a blue fire-demon, and meeting the Witch of the Waste head-on. Which was more than Sophie bargained for...
Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite writers, and in my opinion this is her best book. There is so much to love about it, from the characters and the wonderful world to the writing. There may be (alright, there definitely is) some nostalgia dust floating around it too, as I first read it when I was very young, but I do re-read it every year and it remains just as magical. This is just a special book.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy story at its heart. It’s not based on any one fairytale from our world, but it incorporates elements of lots of them – the three sisters seeking their fortunes, the evil witch, the mysterious wizard, magical objects, spells gone wrong, and a fairytale world. However, what makes the book so fantastic is that the author doesn’t just use and reference fairytale ideas, she also twists them a little while maintaining the true magic and romance of those tales, giving this story both a fresh and at the same time familiar feel. It’s actually quite hard to describe without reading for yourself. This is very much Diana Wynne Jones’ style; you can find it across her books, but, for me, it works best in this one.
And so we get the eldest sister Sophie, who knows that she will never be as successful as her younger sisters as that’s just how things seem to work. Poor Sophie! But she’s wrong; she is soon sent off on an incredible adventure of her own, and she finds out that she is a lot more powerful than she ever dreamed she could be. But here’s the real strength of Diana Wynne Jones’ storytelling. Sophie doesn’t succeed at the expense of her sisters. This is not the kind of story that tells us that older sisters and less pretty sisters are the strong ones, and that the young, pretty ones are always silly and icky. Sophie isn’t Lizzie Bennet, held up as the sensible one in comparison to irritating but attention-hogging younger siblings. Sophie also isn’t the kind of character who goes off on her quest and then forgets all about her family. Sophie’s sisters have their own adventures, and succeed, and are happy, and Sophie continues to look out for them.
Sophie herself is a wonderful character. She is turned into an old lady near the beginning of the book, and then is forced to seek her fortune as a young girl in an old body. Ironically, it is only when this happens that Sophie really begins to live, to focus on herself and her own desires a little more, and to discover her youth. She is often shy and worried, and she is afraid of doing new things, but she is incredibly brave and keeps going despite her fear. She begins to show a huge amount of intelligence and inner strength, a practical no-nonsense attitude, and a deep care for others as well as a bit of a romantic streak. She is also quite nosey and very forceful when she wants her own way, which leads to some very funny scenes.
In contrast, the wizard Howl is melodramatic, vain, and a little lazy. He wears his heart on his sleeve and likes to think he is a bit of a womaniser, though it becomes clear that he’s actually very romantic. He’s often infuriating, especially to Sophie, and his sulks are some of the funniest things in the book. However, he’s also kind and brave, and a much better person than he pretends to be. He and Sophie are wonderful together, and it is their interactions that make the book such a delight to read.
Diana Wynne Jones also provides a lot of fantastic supporting characters who all add to the plot, and to the book’s humour and heart. There’s Calcifer the fire demon, Sophie’s determined sisters, who switch places and both end up being called Lettie, leading to much confusion, Howl’s assistant, the wicked witch, a living scarecrow, and a depressed dog, among others. There is also the moving castle itself, which not only floats about the countryside but also opens onto various locations including the main city where the king lives, and Howl’s home in our own world. If the latter sounds like it would be a bit jarring in a fairytale world, it really isn’t – it adds another great element to the plot and the humour, and explains a little of Howl’s weirder behaviour.
The writing in the book is lovely. It’s written for children, so it’s not challenging at all, but has a certain wit and intelligence to it that makes it a pleasure to read. The author has also managed to capture that charm of a fairytale, while also creating a world that feels very English and quite cosy. It’s one of those books that makes you feel happy and safe when you read it – a total comfort read! It also has one of my favourite romances ever, and the end is both touching and exactly right. All the various plot points are rounded off nicely, with a few little satisfying twists and plenty of happy endings. You’re guaranteed to finish this with a smile on your face!